Losing a baby — either during pregnancy or after birth — is one of the most profoundly painful experiences a parent will ever endure. Yet these experiences are more common than most of us realize. About 10-15% of women will experience a miscarriage, about 24,000 U.S. babies are stillborn each year, and over a thousand babies die each year in the U.S. of SIDS. October 15th is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day and it’s important to understand and discuss the grief that you, or maybe a loved one, has experienced.
The Silence Surrounding Pregnancy and Infant Loss
Losing a baby is a life-altering experience and so few women are given time and space to talk about or even experience their feelings — which often only increases the hardship. For many women, discussing their emotions and feelings is stigmatized or seen as taboo. Women are expected to grieve alone, quickly get pregnant again, or “get over it” and move on.
In addition, very few healthcare providers that interact with mothers, during or in the wake of their loss, fully address the mental health effects of pregnancy and infant loss. In general, there are few built-in societal support networks for grieving mothers — few places for mothers to turn for guidance and support as they move through the grieving process.
Mothers are often left to deal with their feelings virtually alone, which can only make it more difficult to heal.
How Pregnancy and Infant Loss Affects Mental Health
No matter what kind of loss you experience, whether it be an early miscarriage, or the death of your newborn, the experience of losing a child can have deep and lasting affects on your mental health.
Anxiety and depression
For example, miscarriages — which are often dismissed by healthcare professionals, because they are so common — cause symptoms of anxiety and depression in at least 20% of sufferers. These effects can last for 1 to 3 years after the fact, even impacting the experience of future pregnancies.
Statistics are similar for women who have experienced stillbirth. Studies show that your risk of developing anxiety and depression increases significantly after a stillbirth — and this can spill over to a subsequent pregnancy. Women who’ve experienced stillbirth are 22% more likely to experience anxiety, and 19.7% more likely to experience depression during a post-stillbirth pregnancy.
Women who experience pregnancy loss are also at risk for developing PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD after pregnancy and infant loss may include nightmares, feeling “numb,” trouble sleeping, flashbacks, and replaying the events of the loss obsessively, almost on a loop. It’s common for mothers who experience PTSD after a loss to blame themselves for what happened, and to fixate on the “what ifs” and what they would have done differently to prevent the loss.
How To Help Mothers After Loss
Most healthcare providers focus on the mother’s physical health following a loss, and discuss when the appropriate time is for the couple to try again for another baby. But more and more health organizations are urging providers to screen mothers for depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges following the loss of a child.
This screening shouldn’t just take place in the weeks immediately following the loss; mothers experience mental health issues months — even years following a loss — and the way a mother experiences her potential subsequent pregnancies will be affected by her previous loss.
If you are the loved one of a mother who has experienced pregnancy loss, the first thing you can do is be a good listener. Validate the mother’s feelings and discourage her from blaming herself. Help her take care of her immediate needs: bring her food, watch her other children so she can rest, etc. If she seems to be experiencing a mental health challenge, gently encourage her to get help, and help her find the right kind of mental health care for her needs.
Where To Seek Help After Loss
If you experienced an infant loss, whether recently, a few months ago, or even if years have passed, you should know that there is a lot of kind, compassionate, non-judgmental help out there.
Some mothers find it beneficial to speak to a therapist who has background in pregnancy and child loss. You may prefer an in-person therapist, or you may find that online therapy options are more convenient for you and that the confidentiality is helpful as you process your loss.
There are also in-person and online support groups for mothers who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss. You may find it very therapeutic to connect with other mothers who have experienced something similar to what you have. It may feel that no one truly “gets” what you are feeling, but you may find that others who are in a similar boat will be able to empathize more than others.
Whatever avenue you decide is right for you, please don’t neglect your mental health. Your difficult feelings are not ones you should try to push away. Your feelings are valid, and you deserve a chance to feel better.
Remind Yourself: You Are Not To Blame
If you experienced a loss during pregnancy or after birth, it is so important not to blame yourself for what happened. It is so easy to do — after all, in most cases, you really wanted your baby, and did everything possible to stay healthy and keep your baby safe. But infant or child loss is not your fault; there is nothing you could have done to prevent it.
Don’t minimize your feelings
Some women tell themselves that what they experienced wasn’t as bad as it could have been, or was less tragic than what someone else experienced. It’s so important to keep in mind that there are no comparisons here: your feelings about what happened are real.
Eventually, you will be able to accept that pregnancy and infant losses are among the life tragedies that are beyond our control — as awful and painful as they are. You will always miss what could have been, and it’s normal to feel that loss too — for it to be a part of your life.
Just know, you will be okay. Eventually, you will be able to move on from this and live a happy, healthy life. You are resilient, stronger than you know, and you will pull through.